Louisiana today has the highest incarceration rate among the states, with 868 of every 100,000 of its citizens in prison. A major cause is the expansion of determinate sentencing laws in recent decades, which have been disproportionately applied to nonviolent crimes. As a result, the majority of inmates and admissions to prison in the state today are nonviolent offenders. Further, the trend has been costly for taxpayers-the state prison population has nearly doubled over the past two decades, with a commensurate increase in correctional spending of over $300 million. Yet, these laws have failed to reduce Louisiana’s violent crime rate.
While Louisiana policymakers have enacted some modest sentencing reforms, a recently released study by Reason colleagues Lauren Galik and Julian Morris-published by the Reason Foundation, Pelican Institute for Public Policy, and Texas Public Policy Foundation-recommends that they take additional steps to reform the state’s sentencing laws to right-size the prison population and get better results from its criminal justice system.
The reforms suggested in the report include:
- repealing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses (and making the repeal retroactive);
- amending the state’s habitual offender law to limit its application to those criminals who have committed violent or serious felonies, not nonviolent offenses;
- enacting a “safety valve” provision to give judges the discretion to bypass mandatory minimum sentences when appropriate; and
- reforming the state’s parole system.
Such changes would ensure that violent criminals continue to receive appropriate punishments, while ensuring a more rational handling of nonviolent offenders, which would serve to reduce the prison population, lower the costs of incarceration to taxpayers, and enhance the state’s ability to focus on improved rehabilitation and programming with the aim of lowering recidivism rates.
To make their case, Galik and Morris examined similar reforms from other states. For example, Rhode Island repealed mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses in 2009, which helped immediately reduce the prison population by over 9 percent and did not result in an increase in the violent crime rate (it has actually dropped). And in 2003, Maine-which has the lowest incarceration rate in the nation-passed “safety valve” legislation in 2003 to allow judges to impose a sentence other those specified in mandatory minimum laws if a number of criteria are met, including the lack of an adverse effect on public safety.
Maine and Rhode Island’s reforms have lowered the costs of corrections and allowed them to focus their resources on criminals that truly pose a real threat to society. Given their spiraling prison costs and failure to reduce violent crime rates, Louisiana policymakers would be well advised to follow suit.
For more details, the full study-Smart on Sentencing, Smart on Crime: An Argument for Reforming Louisiana’s Determinate Sentencing Laws-is available here, and Galik’s recent op-ed in the Shreveport Times on how mandatory minimum sentencing is hurting Louisiana is available here.
Leonard Gilroy is director of government reform at Reason Foundation and is the editor of the Privatization & Government Reform Newsletter, available here.